WATERLOO—Pencil in hand, Dennis Olejniczak sits in the dugout shade and writes a lineup on a yellow card.
It’s a warm late spring afternoon, and the longtime head baseball coach at Decorah High School is preparing for an upcoming game against Waterloo East. Jotting down the lineup has been part of the routine for Olejniczak’s entire adult life.
That little yellow card also serves as a ticket to his childhood.
Growing up in Tripoli, Olejniczak played youth baseball when he wasn’t working as a batboy for the local town team. While an adult supervised the kids, somebody else figured out the lineup regularly.
That somebody was Dennis Olejniczak, a baseball man through and through at the tender age of 12, or perhaps 13.
Laughing at the memory, Olejniczak said, “I understood the game pretty well by that time.”
He added, “I knew I wanted to be a baseball coach and I was pretty sure I wanted to be an educator. I really liked being around people at school. I saw myself quite early on as trying to be a school teacher and a coach. I did.”
At the age of 76, Olejniczak is still enjoying the summertime of his life. While using that pencil to put his players in the right spot at the right time, Olejniczak has coached a lot of baseball, even after retiring as a fulltime teacher 17 years ago.
When the 2016 season began, Olejniczak owned an overall record of 1,356-528, a mark that covers a brief stay at Janesville (1961-62) and the move to Decorah in 1963. Through Thursday, Olejniczak’s total stood 1,365-535. He ranks second in wins among high school baseball coaches in the United States, behind only the now-retired Gene Schultz at Kee High.
The national prep baseball coach of the year in 2009 and a Hall of Famer in Iowa, Olejniczak has won three summer state titles with Decorah—in 1970, 1990 and 1991 -and finished as a runner-up three more times.
Coaching, said Olejniczak, is now a year-by-year proposition. His wife, Paula, has dealt with Parkinson’s Disease for 18 years. He’s had heart issues. Yet, the boy that shaped lineups in Tripoli is still part of the man with pencil at the ready when he’s not prowling the third-base coaching box.
“You know, as long as my health will let me and the kids respond,” said Olejniczak as he looked ahead. “If I can’t get the kids to respond, then I’ll be out baseball immediately, and I say that as honestly as I can be honest.”
Grinning, the Viking coach added, “But it’s still so much fun because it’s such a great challenge. If I played ping-pong, I’d want to win every damn point. I still am competitive.
“The kids keep you young. That’s the other thing. You have to think their thinking, and they know I can joke and read what they’re trying to joke with me. That’s a big thing. You’ve got to be able to do that, but you’re never giving them the opportunity to think that they’re on the same level that you are. You get to make the last decision. You get to decide who plays.
“Even though I want to be kid-like, and I still do, I’m not one of them.”
When Olejniczak was one of them, when he was a kid, several people helped sharpen his skills, his knowledge and his love of baseball.
One, of course, was his father. Ed Olejniczak played catch with the young Dennis, but he also brought the son along to the Tripoli town team’s games. Someone else did the on-field managing, but Ed Olejniczak dragged the field, took the tickets, handled concessions.
If you want to see a hint of how the father influenced the son, go to Olejniczak Field in Decorah. As part of the renovations a few years ago, a grandstand was built behind home plate. That idea came from Dennis Olejniczak.
“My dad would be there with an old water tank selling pop,” said Olejniczak. “I wanted those memories back. He really started me in baseball. Now, we have a beautiful grandstand—not wood obviously. It’s the modern kind.”
Later came his high school baseball coach at Tripoli. Then Olejniczak became an outfielder at Iowa State Teachers College—now the University of Northern Iowa. As a Panther, he was influenced by another legendary coach—Mon Whitford.
“Mon was a personality of his own, really” said Olejniczak. “I felt he was a very good baseball coach about teaching us how to stay ahead of the game and what to expect in the game. I give him a lot of credit for really encouraging me to want to keep playing baseball and coaching baseball.”
Olejniczak has also coached girls’ basketball and football, but he’s a baseball man from day one. Since taking charge of the program at Decorah 53 years ago, he’s taught the game to his Vikings his way.
Smiling, Olejniczak noted that his former players are still tuned in to what the Vikings are doing on the field.
“Our alumni sit over there and have a great time,” he said. “They know what’s coming on.”
More seriously, Olejniczak said, “I haven’t changed anything from day one, since I’ve come.”
And: “I’ve seen success the way we do it. I won’t let them go to camps and bring back a different philosophy. I won’t do it. I’ve spent too much of my time, in other words, trying to help kids have the fun of the great game. And the fun—I spelled it out in the dugout pregame (Wednesday)—the first little “A” under fun is winning. Parents talk about they’ve got to have fun. Nobody has fun when you lose. The first part of having fun in athletics is winning.
“The second one is making sure you’re not about yourself and your attitude is about giving it all back to your teammates. Truly, when you end up getting married and having a spouse, it’s about you understanding that you give back to her and your kids and then extend it to the rest of the immediate family and the community.
“It’s about you giving what you’ve got—not for you, but for those of us who depend on you—your teammates first and your parents second.”
Olejniczak also makes it perfectly clear. While he’s earned his share of honors, all the boys who have played baseball at Decorah deserve the credit. He’s now coaching the sons of former players; that, too, has been part of the program for a long time.
“If I didn’t like our kids, I wouldn’t keep doing it,” he said. “It takes a lot of tooth pulling to get them, sometimes, to the water tank, I’ll tell you. But, for the most part, they understand it’s about them. It’s not about me. I’ve been to the mountain top with the success other teams have had.”
On this spring Wednesday, Decorah won twice, and there were moments when it was clear why the Vikings have been successful.
For instance, a ground ball hit down the first-base line hit the bag and popped straight up. Decorah first baseman Jacob Marlow calmly waited for the ball to drop into his glove, and then made a good toss to pitcher Ian Smith covering the bag. Out at first, and Olejniczak walked out of the dugout to congratulate his players.
“I do as much coaching during the game as possible and then go back through situations again on the way home,” said Olejniczak. “As soon as a good play is made, I do a lot of complimenting right away. That way, they know this is the way we want it done. The other half of that is, I also do a lot of constructive criticism when it’s not done right.”
Later, as Olejniczak was in the middle of a conversation, a man walked into the dugout. He was the father of an East player. Meetings with parents can be cordial; they can also be confrontational. This one was reverential.
The father said, “I just wanted to tell you I think you’re probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen.”
Said Olejniczak after thanking the parent, “You don’t know how much it means to have somebody like that say that to me. I put in heart and soul.”